When writing interventions on contemporary events, one’s best hope is that comrades of all stripes will engage with them closely and critically. I have recently written two –Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century and How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire– and in return received an abundance of such gifts. Some have, naturally, raised serious objections to my arguments. Some of these concern vital strategic questions for the climate movement and the broader left. I therefore feel a duty to respond and elaborate on certain points, and I shall here begin with How to Blow Up a Pipeline. But, first, I should like to point out that the most productive discussions I have had about this book have not made it into text. They have come in talks with comrades in and around the climate movement, very much including, I should like to stress, given that I am rather critical of this organisation in How to Blow, people from Extinction Rebellion, who have struck me as highly astute and lucid in their views of the dilemmas of the struggle. Here I shall focus on critique presented in written form, after having restated and updated some of the basic propositions in How to Blow.
When does the fightback begin?
In The Ministry for the Future, the most important book on climate politics since Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, Kim Stanley Robinson sets the scene with a hyper-lethal heatwave. It takes place in Uttar Pradesh in the year 2025. The combination of heat and humidity is such that the air feels like a sauna, impossible to escape for days on end. Human bodies cannot take it for that long. In a town near Lucknow where one of the characters, the American volunteer Frank, finds himself, families sleep on the roofs and wake up to discover that elders and children have expired during the night: ‘wails of dismay cut the air’. The corpses rot in the sun. All the air conditioners in the region overburden the electricity grid and power goes out; generators give insufficient protection; tens of thousands of panicking humans scramble into a nearby lake and sink into the water, to little avail: the lake itself feels ‘only a few degrees from boiling’. Heads with red eyes about to pop out of their sockets dot the surface, fewer and fewer alive. Some 20 million people die in the northern Indian heatwave – more than in World War I, over the course of a week. The first chapter of The Ministry for the Future is a punch in the belly of the reader. No one should then be able to put the book aside.
Now, as Bill McKibben notes in his review, this heatwave is fictional only in a narrow, temporal sense: it hasn’t yet happened. But something like it is ‘all but guaranteed.’ Perhaps the contemporary novelist with the deepest grasp of climate science, Robinson bases his scenario on a paper from 2017 demonstrating that continued business-as-usual will, over this century, produce just these unbearable conditions on the Subcontinent, from Lucknow to Sri Lanka. When the wet-bulb temperature – a compound metric of heat and humidity – exceeds 35°C, the human body simply cannot cool itself; the mechanisms of heat exchange break down; after a few hours, even the fittest person hiding in the shade will perish. Intense heatwaves that cross this threshold can thus result in mass death. An earlier paper had showed that this fate awaits the Persian Gulf, and a subsequent study came up with the same findings for the North China Plain. Worsening heatwaves have been observed in all three regions in recent years, the brushes with the 35°C degrees closer and closer. Then five months after The Ministry of the Future was published, yet another study concluded that waves above the critical level will roll across the tropics once average global warming surpasses 1.5°C. The Guardian dutifully reported this piece of news. The headline said: ‘Global heating pushes tropical regions towards limits of human livability.’ It was posted in a box just below the latest headlines from the Meghan and Harry drama.
Tropical regions, where are they? In a band circling the globe, between a northern line cutting through Mexico, Libya, India and a southern through Brazil, Madagascar, Australia: currently home to about 40 percent of humanity. This zone pushed towards the limits of human livability. In a minimally sane society, the news would be ‘plastered on every lamppost and stop sign in America, no less the world’; in society as it is, rather few seemed to bother. In White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism, the Zetkin Collective and I argue that callous indifference towards the suffering of people of colour is an underestimated foundation of business-as-usual. Sometimes it is made explicit. We quote economist and Telegraph columnist Andrew Lilico, who, when arguing that adaptation not mitigation is the way to address climate breakdown, spilled the guts: ‘I imagine tropics adapt to 4C by being wastelands with few folk living in them. Why is that not an option?’ It seems rather unlikely that any bourgeois economist-cum-journalist would consider the total evacuation of Western Europe and New England a reasonable price to pay for maintaining business-as-usual. Nor would reports of the imminent uninhabitability of these places be sorted below the latest intrigues in the royal family. (Or would they? One can’t be sure, of course.) Nor does it appear that the global North is readying to host all those millions or billions that would need to be rescued from the tropical furnace. Who cares about them?
The people at greatest risk live in slums and work outdoors or in poorly ventilated buildings: the working classes of the global South, that is.[i] They might yet be spared their hyperthermic destiny. The latest study finds that the worst killer waves in the tropics would be avoided if average heating stays below 1.5°C. But one the other hand, the World Meteorological Association now considers it likely that this limit will be overstepped in one or more months before 2024. So: all but guaranteed.
What does not figure in the models or the thermometers, however, is popular resistance. After the events Robinson places in northern India in 2025, something amazing happens: the fightback begins. Traumatised, embittered, enraged young Indians form a movement called ‘the Children of Kali’, named after the Hindu goddess of death. They proclaim the immediate termination of fossil fuel combustion and put words into action. Cells fan out to attack fossil fuel infrastructure and machinery: ‘Scores of power plants were being destroyed all over the world, often by drone attacks.’ Private jets and yachts and container ships running on diesel fuel are downed by ‘torpedoes from nowhere’. As more climate cataclysms hit, the Children of Kali morph into a transnational movement, copycat actions spreading all over the globe – but particularly in the northern capitalist core – further multiplied by the underground wing of the eponymous UN-affiliated Ministry for the Future. ‘Possibly some coal plants have experienced problems’, the head of the wing explains in undertone to his boss. ‘They’ve had to go offline, and the investment crowd has seen that and understood that they won’t ever be good investments again. In a sense you could say that worked.’ But these outfits do not stop at property destruction: the Children of Kali assassinate fossil fuel executives. They kill ultra-rich men guilty of endless, meaningless amounts of luxury emissions – ‘They killed us so we kill them’ – and strive only to avoid hurting innocent civilians.
The Ministry for the Future is a utopia more than a dystopia. Over its 600 pages, humanity manages to rid itself of fossil fuels and begin to undo the damage they have already done and restore a liveable climate (as well as rewilding much of the planet). In this imagined transition, militant resistance is the propulsive force. As another reviewer has noted, it is not
just one of many strategies, but the strategy that makes all the others possible. It is the most courageous and boldest aspect of the book – to reject it is to reject the core of Robinson’s optimism. (…) The novel is clear that it is only after putting the fear of death into the hearts of the powerful that they will come to the table and consider something as seemingly reasonable as a carbon offset currency. If our world is going to look anything like the one in the book – that is, if there is any hope at all for our children’s children – it will be due to people who realize we are in a war, and start acting like it.
That prognosis is very grim indeed. Robinson himself does not share it fully. The Children of Kali are a product of his fantasy, which predicts that
‘if we don’t come to grips with these problems now, then 10 years from now, there’s going to be so much suffering, that people are going to be stupendously angry and there will be violence, right?’
The question is of what kind it should be. Robinson – here not the imaginative novelist, but the political commentator – approves of ‘sabotage, which would be destruction of property rather than human beings, sure. But violence against human beings? No.’ He would like it to be ‘targeted and asymmetrical and smart and effective’, rather than ‘spasms of angry violence that don’t actually accomplish very much.’
Precisely the same bleak hope – a position somewhere on the spectrum between disillusioned realism and desirous optimism – is what I entertain in How to Blow. But perhaps I should have framed the problem more like Robinson: the violence is coming, all but guaranteed like the hyper-lethal heatwaves, on the assumption that humans are not killed in the many millions without ever fighting back. The question for climate movements, including any coming children of Kali, is how to give that violence direction and lend it political purpose and impose on it some essential restraint. To that comes another question: when does the fightback begin? Do we have to wait for 20 million people to die? Or should we start sooner rather than later? Actual events from last year might provide some material for such considerations.
Lessons from BLM
Three days after George Floyd was murdered, the masses of Minneapolis stormed the police station of the third precinct. The colleagues of Derek Chauvin fled in disarray. Under chants of ‘burn it down!’, the crowd entered the building and, Molotov Cocktails and combustible material in hand, consigned it to the flames. Over the three days between Floyd’s death and the fall of the station, Minneapolis was engulfed in a rising tide of property destruction, windows smashed, buildings graffitied, businesses torched and shops ransacked in more than 1,500 locations.
But, as Vicky Osterweil has argued, it was the conquest of the third precinct that ‘changed everything’. The demonstrators now ‘showed millions of people that they could defeat the police. For many, it finally broke through the veil of omnipotence, timelessness, and domination’ attached to this institution: a kind of paralysis was shattered. The police, it turned out, do not stand above everyone else; their machinery of death is not beyond popular influence; the systematic violence against African Americans is not an inexorable fate – it can be stopped, literally, physically. ‘The police were returned to the realm of history’.
Strategic pacifism – my main analytical target in How to Blow – is the theory that as soon as social movements engage in violent tactics, they alienate their intended audiences, lose respect and support and shrink to impotent fringe groups. In the early summer of last year, exactly the opposite happened. The first days of insurrection in Minneapolis catalysed an anti-racist uprising on a scale never before seen. Counted in the number of people participating in rallies in the six weeks between 26 May and 3 July – somewhere between 15 and 26 million – this was the largest social movement in US history. (By comparison, the crest of the climate strike wave, in September 2019, involved some 6 million people worldwide.) Quite famously, the vast bulk of the demonstrations for black lives in the summer of 2020 were peaceful. But from Minneapolis via Portland to Kenosha and a string of other flashpoints, they also had a confrontative edge. It did battle with the police and destroyed property (to the tunes of between 1 and 2 billion dollars in insurance cost, the most expensive such damage ever recorded in the US.) And, of course, the initial overrunning of the third precinct was accomplished by means of lasers, fireworks, rocks, Molotov Cocktails and other projectiles. It was a riot.
To repeat the point: no one should be able to deny that counter-violence from below was integral to the George Floyd uprising. When it exploded in Minneapolis, it did not, as strategic pacifism would expect, scare people off – instead it rallied them to the cause like never before, because it demonstrated that the killer cops could be overwhelmed. What had appeared as an inescapable fact of American nature, to which people often had resigned themselves in despair, was brought down to the ground of human action: and when that happens to an institution, everything about it does change. Strategic pacifism holds that combative flanks cannot operate in a productive dialectic with peaceful majorities. Again, the Floyd uprising disproved it: the dialectic was there, not without tensions and frictions, which will probably never be the case, but in the form of a swelling nationwide sea of unrest. No one could, I think, persuasively argue that BLM would have achieved more had it stayed with tranquil vigils and serene marches. Strategic pacifism contends that a mix of militancy and masses cannot work, let alone secure victories: and I cannot imagine a more resounding refutation than this episode.
What can the climate movement learn from it? We will never have an incident like the murder of George Floyd. We won’t have an eight-minutes film capturing how a fossil fuel executive chokes a farmer in Uttar Pradesh or a construction worker in Oaxaca to death. The violence of fossil capital is not directly interpersonal, one body on top of another: it is mediated through the atmosphere. It strikes from a heaven oversaturated with burnt carbon. But it is, nonetheless, a form of violence: a systematic destruction of lives (incidentally the lives of people of colour first and foremost), the purpose of which is profit. Derek Chauvin obviously had the intention to extinguish the life of George Floyd. A fossil fuel executive merely wants to make money, any climatic effects beside the point; but once it becomes abundantly clear that his money-making actually kills multitudes, this absence of intention begins to fill up. Henceforth mass casualties are an ideologically and mentally processed, de facto accepted result of accumulation. The case for classifying the activities of fossil fuel companies as violence – structural, constant, ever on the rise – is not hard to make, but it is based on theoretical reasoning, not on the gut feelings like those forming in viewers of the Floyd film. This seems to present us with a problem. Can fossil capital ever elicit the sort of uncontainable outrage that flowed through Minneapolis? Will the violence of large-scale fossil fuel combustion be regarded as such, or will the limitations of human perception forever keep it out of sight?
Kim Stanley Robinson has an answer: after the heatwave catastrophe on the scale of several genocides, there can no longer be any doubt. The mere act of flying in a private jet becomes widely seen as homicidal. What is now, in early 2021, still a statistical report – the richest one percent of humanity have emitted twice as much as the poorest half – diffuses as common knowledge: by their very mode of consumption, the most propertied put propertyless people to death. The misery of the latter has sources of origin. But before things become fully as bad as in the first chapter of The Ministry, there will be no shortage of lesser disasters: wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts, storm surges, glacial lake outburst floods and all the rest, with casualties perhaps counting in the thousands. Each of these incidents will have the potential to become the Minneapolis moment of the climate struggle.
All signs so far are that fossil fuel infrastructure will keep on expanding under this rising curve of disaster: Total drilling for more fossil gas in the Arctic, Shell planning to pump more not less, a third runway coming to Heathrow, banks pouring trillions of dollars into extraction, to mention a handful. At some point, the magnitude of violence perpetrated here might dawn on people. It could happen when egregious projects coincide with shocking scenes of climate suffering; a novelist’s imagination is not required for such scenarios. In fact, the close linkages are already in place, as when Australia is on fire or under water and still ruled by a class intent on producing ever more coal and gas.
What if, the next time Australia is hit by an inferno or a deluge, some activists call for a demonstration outside a coal installation and the crowd, after initial skirmishes with the guards, storm it and wreck it utterly? Could that contribute to shattering the paralysis that surrounds the climate crisis? Might it drive home the message that the loss of lives and homes to flames and floods is not an inexorable fate, but a product of ongoing decisions about investment – and that unless those decisions are fully reversed, the losses will continue until there is nothing left at all? Might it return fossil fuels to the realm of history? Or, what if a hurricane devastates Martinique or Guadeloupe just as the French president signs off another funding package for Total, and the call goes out to march on the company headquarters…
One should wish for outbursts of climate rage to come early rather than late. For that to happen, the climate movement in the global North needs to learn two things: first, to strike when the iron is hot – not only on pre-scheduled Fridays or ‘action days’ or in conjunction with UN summits, but when disasters occur and the violence of fossil fuels can be visualised. Second, to articulate rage. The movement needs to stop being so timid. As Alice Swift points out, a ‘rigid approach to non-violence has dominated’, particularly under the auspices of the 2018-19 edition of XR, with an absolute taboo on confrontational tactics such as property destruction. This is now beginning to change. XR is apparently embarking on a campaign of smashing the windows of banks funding fossil fuel extraction. Advertised as an ‘escalation of tactics’, it redirects disruptive XR actions away from city life in general towards the sources of deadly accumulation: and it cannot but be welcomed. It might so far be performed by tiny bands of individuals, but ‘small groups can experiment with tactics that later serve as the basis for mass actions’. Once the taboo has been broken, a properly infuriated crowd forming around a bank building may know what to do.
A challenge flowing from this transgression is, of course, to uphold another taboo: that on taking someone’s life. Here again BLM offers lessons. The radical flanks of that movement were wise not to assassinate cops or send suicide bombers into police headquarters. While polls showed that a majority of Americans endorsed the storming of the third precinct, such forms of violence would have burnt away popular support in an instant. Explosive as the violence of the early BLM crowds had to be, it was subjected to collective self-discipline (the US, after all, has all the guns one could dream of). Plenty of other cases in history show that violence is not in fact ‘impossible to control’, in the sense that it spins automatically into bloody vendettas. It is a risky undertaking. And sometimes the values at stake justify taking the risks.
Thus: destruction of property, sure. But violence against human beings? No. This is the position enunciated in How to Blow. John Molyneux misreads it as advocating small-group sabotage solely. He is right to stress ‘spontaneous street violence’ developing out of intensifying disputes as a typical – if not the signal – feature of upheaval. But if the leaderships of the movement in question enforce a strategic doctrine that rules out such actions as undesirable and counterproductive, they are less likely to eventuate. This is known as the ‘peace police’ on the US streets, where it was significantly weakened in late May 2020; in the climate movement of the global North, it has, with few exceptions, so far reigned almighty. My book is an attempt to stimulate discussions about a wider set of tactics – which, yes, could also include sabotage squads. Property destruction can take off in the heat of the moment, or be planned in advance; when BLM activists marched up to statues and toppled them with chains and ropes and sledgehammers, there was patently an element of premeditation. The behaviour of masses is not genetically or psychologically programmed. It is formed by the steps the activists on the ground take, or not. My argument in How to Blow is that the time has come for the climate movement to also pick up some tools and set our eyes on the bases of violence.
The problem of repression
In an indignant review headlined ‘How to Blow Up a Movement’, James Wilt accuses me of ‘entrapment’. He thinks I lure gullible activists to commit crimes that will land them in jail and thereby ‘do the work of the carceral state for it’. Three times does he claim that I never spend a word on the problem of repression. That is not true. Anyone can open the book on page 122 and read on.[ii] Granted, I could have spent more pages on it, as well as on several other problems of militant struggle, all of which I discuss only in outline, this being a short book. Wilt is right that I do not go into the details of things like bail funds, de-arresting, legal resources or prisoner support, just as I do not enter into the minutiae of how to wield a sledgehammer or indeed how to blow up a pipeline; as every perceptive reviewer has noticed, the arguments are formulated at the level of principles. Wilt appears to have his own. The thrust of his text is that increased repression is a predictable consequence of escalated tactics, and therefore such tactics should not be promoted.
Activists in Canada already face severe punishment. Wilt mentions the case of one who received 90 days in jail for a peaceful smudging ceremony at a pipeline. He dwells on his own participation in a blockade that burdened him and his comrades with tens of thousands in legal fees ‘draining our personal bank accounts’. The purpose of these examples is ‘to call attention to the extremely high stakes of any kind of struggle’. Ramping up our protests – from, say, beating drums to actually ripping apart pipelines – would inevitably raise them further, and so this course of action cannot be championed by any responsible friend of the movement. How can I take repression so lightly? Wilt thinks it must be because the actions I describe in How to Blow merely involve ‘deflating tires and knocking over a few fences’. He seems to have read it as an exhaustive autobiography of my activism. I can assure him that it is not. Including a few selected stories from my experiences in the climate movement may not have been the optimal procedure, but I did it to enliven the text and adumbrate a possible trajectory: from entirely peaceful civil disobedience at COP1 (1995) to deflation of SUVs in rich neighbourhoods (2007) to storming a coal-fired power-plant (2016) and beyond. Now, if I may, I will draw on another personal experience to try to clarify my general view of the problem.
I spent eight formative years immersed in the Palestinian cause, in the years leading up to the Second Intifada and then as an activist and organiser with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). That is a long time ago, but the peak of ISM, in the years 2002-4, is not so distant that it sits in another political epoch. ISM can be reasonably compared with the contemporary climate movement in the global North, which tends to attract a similar demography: young people, often students, mostly on the left.[iii] Now, how did we deal with the problem of repression? Rachel Corrie was the first of our activists to be killed, on 16 March 2013, by an Israeli soldier who crushed her to death with his armoured bulldozer as she tried to protect Palestinian homes in Rafah. ISM activists on the ground determined that it was murder. Then we streamed to the West Bank and Gaza like never before. The ISM branches in the US, the UK, France and Sweden – the four countries that sent most volunteers in those days – stepped up the mobilising efforts and dispatched more people to the frontlines, many dozens more of whom were injured, one, Tom Hurndall, deliberately shot to death by an Israeli sniper. Needless to say, these repercussions were nothing compared to what Palestinians have had to contend with over a century of attempts to get free. We Westerners always had the privilege of returning to our safe countries of citizenship. And yet we were prepared to risk significantly more than 90 days in jail or drained personal bank accounts. Why? What are the exact reasons that activists from the Palestine solidary movement in the North were ready to lose life and limb, while some find it irresponsible beyond measure to propose that activists from the climate movement in the same North should expose themselves to the risk of prison?
I can only see one explanation. It is not that the Palestinian cause is inherently more important than that of climate justice. It is that we still don’t see climate as a matter of life and death. When you face the roar of an approaching bulldozer, or when you hear the sniper’s bullets whizz past the alley where you hide with the shabab, you have an immediate, visceral sense that life itself is at stake. But when it comes to climate, that sense is still – at least in much of the global North – lacking. ‘This was yet another manifestation of racism and contempt for the South, yes, but also of a universal cognitive disability, in that people had a very hard time imagining that catastrophe could happen to them, until it did’, writes Robinson. ‘So until the climate was actually killing them, people had a tendency to deny it could happen. To others, yes; to them, no.’ Again, Robinson comes up with a solution of sorts to this predicament. When Frank witnesses the scenes in Uttar Pradesh first-hand, he becomes so radicalised that he tries to join the Children of Kali, whose Indian cadres turn him away; then he travels to the affluent heart of Europe and engage in some very high-stakes activism of his own. This is Robinson’s literary conceit: the coming mass death will make reservations about militant struggle melt away like a glacier in a Swiss valley. The task for the climate movement, however, must be to run ahead of these events – to think and act about climate as the life-and-death-question it really is, preferably before some 20 million people have died. Our task is to combat the failure to see the violence in global heating, not to affirm it.
Wilt makes it sound as if activists in Canada and similar countries face repression of historically unique harshness. I fail to see what evidence could back up that view. I find it easy to see, on the other hand, plenty of evidence to support the view that climate breakdown is the worst crisis in human history. Now, if the repression is so savage that it compels us to neuter our struggle against the sources of this crisis, it really would need to be on a demonstrably corresponding – or surpassing – level of unprecedentedness. A peasant revolt was subdued in Hungary in 1514. The leader, known as Dósza, was shackled to an iron throne gradually heated up, roasting him while he was still alive; then he was fed to his imprisoned followers, long starved of food, who had to eat his flesh – those who did not were immediately dispatched – until the body of Dósza was no more. I doubt that we will see such scenes playing out in British Columbia in the near future. On the other hand, no one in 1514 faced the kind of planetary destruction currently propelled by fossil capital. Dósza is a bizarre outlier, of course, intended to simply call attention to the far more ‘extremely high stakes of any kind of struggle’ in most periods of the past. But one need not go that far: our comrades in Egypt and Iran (if I can take two other examples to which I have personal links) face infinitely harsher repression than any climate activists in the North currently do. Again, I don’t believe this difference is an index of the lesser significance of our struggle. I think it rather reflects an inability to see and feel the full significance of it (apart from being, obviously, a testimony to where the real carceral states are located).
Every social movement that has ever confronted deeply entrenched interests has had to contend with repression. The recommendation of Wilt is that the climate movement sticks to a path that conveys it to some place safe from its onslaught. To me, this sounds rather like a guarantee that we will never put our enemy’s interests in jeopardy. If the principle is applied to BLM, which, as Wilt rightly points out, drew the fire of the repressive state apparatus – more than 10,000 arrests by June 2020, the batons raining down, the rubber bullets flying – it would translate into remorse that that movement ever got underway. The same for the Yellow Vests, with their eyes and hands lost to police bullets, and, indeed, every other movement of subversive depth. Wilt is afraid that escalated climate actions would make riot cops kick down doors and drive around in tanks. Well, that’s what tends to happen when the antagonisms in society are brought to the surface, as in the US last summer. To me, the irresponsibility rather lies in spreading the illusion that the climate struggle – of all struggles – could sneak into an exception to the rule and succeed without having to grapple with ferocious repression. What would a Palestinian think?[iv] Either: the problem you’re dealing with can’t be that serious, or: you plainly have a deficit of courage.
Pandemics to the rescue?
In a text headlined ‘A Pandemic Can Do What a Movement Cannot’, Alf Hornborg worries that ‘attacks against fossil infrastructure effective enough to cripple our dependence on fossil fuels are unlikely to be able to discriminate between the luxury consumption of the super‐rich and the subsistence needs of the economically least resilient. Such sabotage is thus morally incompatible with the struggle for climate justice.’ That worry would be justified if I or anyone else had called for sabotage crippling the full infrastructure. But I explicitly reject such a pipedream (page 69). All I argue is that property destruction could be one ingredient in the cauldron of unrest that seems indispensable to get the transition going and force states to rid their economies of fossil fuels. (I will return to the question of the state in my second response to critics.) Sabotage can, as R. H. Lossin nicely puts it, be a ‘prefigurative expropriation’– but it cannot be the big, comprehensive and orderly expropriation. In the best case, it can hasten it. Now, if climate activists were to contemplate sabotage, two precepts should make sure they do not strike the least resilient and obviate Hornborg’s worry: first, target infrastructure under construction – that is, before anyone’s subsistence is potentially plugged into it. Second, if you’re going for machines already in use, pick out those of the ultra-rich. No Kenyan pastoralist would be hurt if a superyacht goes down in the Adriatic. The chasms of inequality in the landscape of energy consumption are surely wide enough for sabotage to be able to hit one camp only. Hornborg also has a second worry – ‘Nor is the call for eco‐sabotage likely to enhance the legitimacy of the climate movement’ – but this movement already has all the legitimacy it could ask for: what it lacks is striking force. But here Hornborg has another proposal.
As organised expressions of human agency, neither the climate nor any other social movement can, Hornborg seems to think, accomplishing anything much. He cannot spot any potential for efficacious action.
On the other hand, the new Corona virus has taught us that anything that seriously impairs the operation of the global economy – whether a pandemic, financial collapse or a natural disaster – could effectively avert climate apocalypse. While climate activists and proponents of degrowth affirm that the current global response to the pandemic is not a welcome development from their perspectives, they seriously need to consider the possibility that these may be the only kind of conditions that might make their visions materialise. Although at this point the prospects for a post‐carbon future seem remote, we have not yet seen the end of what a pandemic might accomplish.
Now, as an argument premised on the rejection of sabotage on justice grounds, this seems a bit odd. Activists might damage the interests of the most vulnerable if they commit grave operational mistakes. But a pandemic or similar event is destined to hit the most vulnerable hardest, because that is what disaster always does in class society. There would seem to be few justice gains if the climate movement were to bank on an exacerbated pandemic – not to mention effects on its legitimacy.
Moreover, at a closer look, a pandemic cannot accomplish anything. What it did in 2020 was to cause a dip in global CO2 emissions, falling by 7 percent; as with the financial crash in 2008, the steadily year-on-year growth was temporarily broken. After 2008, emissions immediately rebounded: and the same is overwhelmingly likely as soon as covid-19 dies down. The only way to make sure business-as-usual is not resumed would be to shift the balance of forces so as to implement requisite measures. As one leading research team recently observed:
To be at the scale necessary to meet climate objectives, such post-COVID-19 actions need to deliver a tenfold increase in emissions cuts compared to those observed during 2016-2019 among decarbonizing countries, and be accompanied by a profound disinvestment in fossil fuel-based infrastructure worldwide. Experience from several previous crises show that the underlying drivers of emissions reappear, if not immediately, then within a few years. Therefore to change the trajectory in global CO2 emissions in the long term, the underlying drivers also need to change.
There is no way this could happen without human agency. Or, there might be one: if the pandemic were to accomplish the annihilation of human populations, ‘climate apocalypse’ could perhaps be averted – but only if the survivors were so few as to rule out rebound without the need for deliberate policy. The problem with this, of course, is that the cure appears not so much better than the disease. The same goes for the hope for a tremendous ‘natural disaster’. That, we know, will come without us having to trouble ourselves with conscious interventions into the prevailing order. We might as well sit back and wait.
A word on erasure
I will return to questions of agency and subject – including the role of trade unions in the global North – in my second response. Here I will only briefly address some criticisms offered by Sakshi Aravind in a text headlined ‘How to Write about Pipelines’.
From merely reading the title of my book, she seems to have expected it to be about the struggles of indigenous peoples in North America and Australia (the subject of her own research). It is not. Because it is not, Aravind considers me complicit in ‘a reproduction of settler colonial erasure’. In a similar vein, Wilt lists six First Nations in Canada I do not write about and charge me with ignoring ‘actual struggles being waged by Indigenous and Black people around the world.’ Now, I should perhaps have written more on indigenous struggles than I do in How to Blow, but the way I operated was to write about places I have visited and know something about: Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Dominica. I have very superficial knowledge of indigenous struggles in Canada; I could of course have read up on them – and probably should – but if the argument here is that writings about climate struggle that do not foreground these particular First Nations is, by that very fact, colonial and vaguely racist, I have to say I find it somewhat parochial.[v]
In How to Blow, I am upfront about writing on the climate movement in the global North, although I make the case for its tactical diversification by drawing on examples largely from the South, ranging from Fedaiyan to Umkhonto we Sizwe. Aravind appears, however, to think that climate struggle in a country like Germany, where there are no indigenous populations in the vicinity of the coal mines, is irrelevant. (Like Wilt, she pours scorn on my ‘anecdotal experiences – geographically limited to Sweden’ – although Germany is not a province of Sweden; and presumably she would not advice climate activists who happen to live in Europe to fly into indigenous encampments in North America.) But this is to miss the point of climate justice. Rich countries account for most of the CO2 accumulated over time: poor countries bear the brunt of the impact. That is the injustice – even more blatant, of course, if one counts by class and consumption-based emissions – the movement has set out to redress. Poor people in Bolivia and Mozambique suffer the consequences of something like the lignite mines in Germany, where the dirtiest of all fossil fuels – eminently dispensable – keep underpinning handsome profits. Surely it must be legitimate to ponder how struggles at sites like these could be waged more forcefully? Is not the confrontation of emissions sources maintained by affluent whites a strike inside the belly of the beast, as the cliché goes?[vi] The historical phenomenon of fossil capital, after all, emerged in England. We deal with some of it in White Skin, Black Fuel. Aravind and Wilt and anyone else who might think that my work is not alert to factors of whiteness and race are hereby, respectfully, invited to read that book and try to maintain their assessment.
Closing the oven
There are multiple reasons for considering The Ministry of the Future the greatest cli-fi novel yet written. Finally, we have a story not set in the distant post-apocalyptic future, but in the future underway right now. It does not concern itself so much with desertification in California or sea level rise in Italy as with the agony coming to countries like India. It makes – and this is, astoundingly, a first – fossil fuel combustion part of the plot. Most importantly, it reserves a wide imaginative space for resistance. Other recent high-profile novels in the genre – Gun Island by Amitav Gosh, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan, Weather by Jenny Offill – might score higher on strict literary elegance, but all fail conspicuously on one or more of the counts where The Ministry excels (worst of all, in my view, Weather). Here is a work showing us how the transition could play out – and if it does, how messy, turbulent, contradictory and overdetermined a process it will be. Resistance makes all progress possible, but it cannot (here Hornborg is right) accomplish everything on its own. Since we’ll be so deep into the crisis come 2025, there will also have to be negative emissions technologies and solar geoengineering. This, however, is where things get complicated.
After the heatwave, the Indian state initiates stratospheric aerosol injection to protect its citizens from further roasting. It unfolds in parallel – no co-ordination – with the actions of the Children of Kali, both required to take the heat off the Subcontinent. Once the global thermostat has been turned down, the state declares mission accomplished. It grounds the flights diffusing the aerosols. Slowly, temperatures creep back up towards the level at the time of the heatwave – but here, for once, Robinson leaves out some momentous science. A switch-off would not induce gradual re-heating. It would be more like opening the door to an oven at full blast. This is the problem of the ‘termination shock’: as long as the door is closed – the soot perpetually injected into the atmosphere – the heat building up inside is not felt, but once the operation is discontinued, it will be released onto the biosphere at one stroke, triggering a warming many times faster than before commencement. Few ecosystems and species – including Homo sapiens – would be able to adapt, particularly if the emissions have grown as usual in the meantime. The Children of Kali ensures that this is not the case.
That leaves us with a rather disconcerting prospect. What if solar geoengineering is initiated, but no resistance is kicked off even then? The National Academies of Sciences just published a report opening up for research and potential deployment. It does not contain anything about organised, militant resistance. Here is a truly dystopian scenario: humanity herded down the path of other kinds of unpredictably spiralling climate catastrophe, without any fightback. Imagine there is still none when the aerosol planes depart for the skies. That would be the last signal to begin.
Can we agree on that?
[ii] To sustain this reading of How to Blow, Wilt has to tie himself up in knots: ‘he is forced to concede that these actions do indeed have impacts on individuals and movements. This is an accurate assessment, and one to be wrestled with. But he never admits it himself.’ Clearly that statement is contradictory: I cannot concede X and never admit it at the same time.
[iii] ISM organised thousands of activists, not millions, as the Fridays for Future did in 2019. But then again Palestine demonstrations could draw quite significant crowds onto the streets of European capitals in those days.
[v] Cf. the note above.
[vi] Aravind, echoing Gabriel Kuhn, also faults me for not writing about Sami people in Sweden. But Sami people in Sweden are not engaged in any conflicts about fossil fuels, because there is no fossil fuel extraction in Sweden. My book is obviously not about extractivism in general – not iron, copper, silver – but about fossil fuels specifically.
First published by Verso
Photo: Bushfires near Cooma, NSW, Australia, January 2020, Saeed Khan / AFP / Getty